15 May 2023
Animals in William Marsden’s The History of Sumatra
When first published in 1783, The History of Sumatra by William Marsden represented the first systematic account of the island of Sumatra published in English or any other European language. The History (henceforth) was highly praised by contemporary scholars and writers and secured Marsden’s reputation as an author, linguist and collector, a reputation that continues to the present day.
Born in 1754 in County Wicklow, Ireland, Marsden was raised in a moderately wealthy family and at the age of 16 joined his elder brother in the service of the English East India Company (EIC henceforth) at Fort Marlborough, now Benkulu, in western Sumatra, Indonesia, as a writer. Marsden remained in Sumatra for 8 years, rising to the rank of Principle Secretary to the EIC Government but resigned from his post aged 24 and returned to London in December 1780, where he pursued a career as an author scholar and later as the First Secretary to the Admiralty (1804-1807).
During his time in Sumatra however, Marsden not only fulfilled his role for the EIC but became an avid collector and documented of the island’s languages, fauna and flora – all of which came to underpin the contents of the History with its chapters of ‘beasts’, ‘vegetables’, ‘medicinal shrubs’, ‘gold, tin and other metals’ and ‘languages’ to name just a few.
The success of the 1783 first edition was such that a second edition quickly followed in 1784, at the same time in which Marsden was firmly establishing himself in London’s networks of science and learning, following his appointment as a fellow of the Royal Society (1783) and the Society of Antiquaries (1785). Marsden continued to write and publish following the second edition of the History, including a Dictionary and Grammar of the Malayan Language (both 1812), a translation of The Travels of Marco Polo (1818) and Numismata Orientalia Illustrata (1823-5) one of the most influential early publications on Asian coinage produced in Britain and Europe. These works illustrated the broad range of subjects - from linguistics to coins to travel accounts that interested Marsden following his return from Sumatra. The History was also translated into German (1785) and French (1788) however Marsden was keen to prepare a new edition of the History, updated with new information and illustrations acquired from his friends and connections still in Sumatra. It would be this updated version, the third edition of 1811 with an additional 100 pages of text and 19 plates containing 27 engraved illustrations of the plants, animals, people, tools and landscapes of Sumatra. Of the 27 illustrations, twelve record different animals found in Sumatra that are described in the main text of the History. What is interesting is that all but one of the illustrations of animals in the History were based on watercolour paintings and pen and ink studies now held in the Visual Art collections of the British Library.
These original works include a study of a Sunda or Malayan pangolin, shown standing in profile on an outcrop of rock, with its coat of scales clearly delineated. This watercolour with pen and ink sketch was used as the basis for plate 10 of the History, and although the original painting is not signed, according to the engraving, the work was made by ‘W. Bell’ believed to have been Dr William Bell, a Company surgeon based in Sumatra in 1792.
Plate 10 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a Sunda pangolin and the original watercolour with pen and ink sketch, NHD1/16, 1784-1808
The original paintings for other works labelled as being the work of ‘W. Bell’ in the History are also found in the Library’s collection of natural history drawings, including pen and ink studies of the skull of a serow, a mammal similar to a goat or antelope and a muntjac skull, also known as barking deer.
Plate 13 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skull of a ‘Kambin-utan and a Kijang’ alongside the original ink drawings; above NHD1/11; Below NHD1/10, 1784-1808
The details of bone, horns, fractures and teeth of both of these sketches has been carefully copied onto a single plate by the Flemish engraver Anthony Cardon (1772-1813) who engraved all of the animal illustrations in the History.
Whilst the work of ‘W. Bell’ is used for 6 of the animal illustrations in the History, a second artist’s work is also included. This artist is unnamed by Marsden in the History, their work simply signed ‘Sinensis del.’ indicating that the work was the creation of an artist from China. This includes a rather stunning double page engraving of a flying lemur hanging from the branch of a langsat tree, holding an infant on its body whilst two giant squirrels sit and climb on the other end of the branch eating the fruit of the tree.
The original painting for these engraving has at some point become divided into two pages – with the squirrels on one page and the lemur and young on another. However the tip of one of the squirrel’s tails continuing across onto the second page indicates that at one point these two separate pages were once joined or at least were meant to be viewed together as shown in the engraved illustration. The original painting is faithfully reproduced in reverse in the engraving, including the botanical details of the interior of the langsat fruit shown in the lower right of the page.
Plate 9 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a flying lemur hanging from a branch with two giant squirrels other the other end, alongside the original watercolour paintings; left NHD2/285; right NHD1/18, 1784-1808
Other works by a Chinese artist include a detailed study of a long tailed porcupine and a pair of greater mousedeer (also known as greater chevrotain) that are both painted without any background or surrounding details. Nonspecific landscapes have however been added to the engraved plates in a style similar to those included in the original works by ‘W. Bell’.
Plate 13 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a long tailed porcupine, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/17, 1784-1808
Plate 12 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a greater mouse deer, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/18, 1784-1808
A hand written pencil note on the painting of the greater mouse-deer indicates the small scale of these animals and states that they should not be shown too large on the resulting plate to ensure this diminutive nature is accurately reflected in the published work.
The majority of the animal illustrated in the History show mammals, however there is one image of a reptile – a study of a common flying dragon which is also stated to be the work of a Chinese artist in the History although no signature is found on the delicate watercolour on which this engraving was based. The original watercolour shows a dorsal and ventral view of the reptile, highlighting the different colouration on the top and bottom of the common flying dragon as well as the outspread skin that allows the lizard to glide through the air.
Plate 10 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a ventral and dorsal view of a common flying dragon alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/26, 1784-1808
A third artist, Eudelin de Jonville, is also referenced in the History’s illustrative animal plates. Although little is known about de Jonville, EIC records show that he worked as a cinnamon surveyor in Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, between 1798 and 1800 when he travelled with Major-General MacDowall to the Court of Kandy, where he remained until around 1805. The one work by de Jonville in the History is a set of four studies of the beaks of different species of hornbill – two illustrating the great pied hornbill, one of a Malabar pied hornbill and finally one image of a rhinoceros hornbill. As with the previously mentioned engravings, the original pencil sketches of these studies is in the Visual Arts natural history collections, each with a scale in inches added to illustration to provide the accurate measurement of each species. Although also unsigned the original pencil sketches is accompanied by a letter written in French by de Jonville to Marsden describing the hornbill of Sri Lanka, strengthening the attribution of this work to the artistry of de Jonville.
Plate 15 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skulls of three species of hornbill alongside the pencil sketches, NHD1/5, 1784-1808
The original paintings described above are all part of a larger collection of natural history studies collected by Marsden following his return from Sumatra in 1780. These include watercolour and pen and ink studies of fish, shells, a buffalo and several birds alongside the animals discussed above. In total 35 paintings acquired by Marsden are now in the Visual Art collections following their donation by Marsden’s widow to the EIC library after his death in 1836. The collections of the EIC library and that of the India Office Library have subsequently been transferred to the British Library, where they are now available to view in the Library’s reading rooms.
By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts Curator
Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, 1962.
John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra (1685-1825): a selection of documents, mainly from the East India Company records preserved in the India Office Library, Commonwealth Relations Office, London., Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965
Diana J. Carroll, "William Marsden, The Scholar Behind The History of Sumatra." Indonesia and the Malay World 47 (2019): 66-89.
William Marsden, The History of Sumatra: Containing an Account of the Government, Laws, Customs, and Manners of the Native Inhabitants, with a Description of the Natural Productions, and a Relation of the Ancient Political State of That Island. By William Marsden,... The Third Edition, with Corrections, Additions, and Plates. ed. 1811.
William Marsden, with introduction by John Bastin, The history of Sumatra, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986
Annabel Teh Gallop, Early Views of Indonesia: Drawings from the British Library, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.